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Kinky's Kosmic Kountry

To a jaded Minnesotan who lived through the administration of one dubious-celebrity-turned-governor, the candidacy of Kinky Friedman for the Texas governor's mansion doesn't quite hold the same irresistible allure as it appears to have to the rest of the country. I saw what happened in St. Paul with Jesse Ventura and I'm not sure I'd wish that on Texas, even though that place is one heckuva political cesspool that could do with more Jewish cowboys and fewer corporate Nazis in office. But still, if you judge strictly on underlying talent, Kinky has it all over Jesse. Despite his reputation as a musical satirist a la Frank Zappa, two new albums show Friedman is more than just a joke - his "cosmic country" songwriting from the 1970s and later reveals that just like Zappa, there's meat on them funnybones.

kinky.jpgWith song titles like "Get Your Biscuits in the Oven (and Your Buns in the Bed)," "They Ain't Makin' Jews Like Jesus Anymore," and "The Ballad of Charles Whitman," it's pretty obvious Friedman's got some kind of an agenda. Although he caught a lot of crap from people in the '70s for seeming to rail in these songs against liberals and their fellow travelers, he couldn't convince many people that even though he was about as far from a redneck as you could get - the Jewish son of a University of Texas professor - it was all satire. Satire, people! I think what threw folks is that the music was so good, so authentically country, in a time when "progressive country" was still a relatively new concept, that most people assumed he meant the words he sang, rather than saw them as the comically intolerant utterances of the characters the songs created.

So when in 1973 on his debut album, Sold American, Friedman sang this on "Get Your Biscuits . . . "

You uppity women I don't understand
Why you gotta go and try to act like a man,
But before you make your weekly visit to the shrink
You'd better occupy the kitchen, liberate the sink.

Get your biscuits in the oven and your buns in the bed
That's what I to my baby said,
Women's liberation is a-going to your head,
Get your biscuits in the oven and your buns in the bed.

. . . there were more than a few folks who took it seriously. And he hasn't changed much since. Consider this song, "Asshole From El Paso," which first appeared on 1992's Old Testaments & New Revelations and has now become the unofficial theme song of his gubernatorial campaign:

We don't have no love-ins in El Paso
We don't go to porno picture shows
We don't swap our wives with our neighbors
And we keep our kids away from Mexico

And I'm proud to be an asshole from El Paso
A place where sweet young virgins are deflowered
You walk down the street knee-deep in tacos
And the wetbacks still get twenty cents an hour

We don't wipe our asses on Old Glory,
God and Lone Star Beer are things we trust
We keep our women virgins till they're married
So hosin' sheep is good enough for us

I mean, there's no mistaking his sympathies here. He's putting down rednecks, not being one. Ironically, the same thing happened to Merle Haggard with the song this is based on, "Okie From Muskogee." That, too, was sung "in character" and not meant literally, but it, too, was taken on face value and so unfairly typecast the pot-smoking Haggard as an extreme right-winger. Friedman, of course, would never be taken for a white supremacist, if only for the name of his band, the Texas Jewboys . . . his parody style was obviously a lot less subtle than Haggard's. But still, his over-the-top sense of humor is what is remembered about him rather than, as it turns out, a surprisingly moving batch of "straight" country songs that to me summon up the best of his 1970s cosmic country cohorts like Gram Parsons, Commander Cody, and Jerry Jeff Walker.

This was brought home to me on two new albums. One is a collection of early Friedman songs that's heavy on the non-Zappa-like tunes, Last of the Jewish Cowboys: The Best of Kinky Friedman (Shout! Factory). The other is a very nice tribute/cover album, Why the Hell Not? The Songs of Kinky Friedman (Sustain Records), which features an A-list of alt-country superstars doing very cool takes on some of those same numbers. The proceeds from the second album are going toward Friedman's Texas governor's campaign warchest.

On the tribute album, for instance, while Kevin Fowler does a perfectly fine rendition of "Get Your Biscuits . . . " it's kind of doomed to failure because no one's going to be funnier doing it than Kinky himself. But when Charlie Robison sings Friedman's "Wild Man of Borneo," which tells the tale of circus freaks but is actually a meditation on human suffering, you're reminded of the best of Parsons . . . twang with a beautifully-stoned edge, the feeling of American tradition being warped by a newer but ultimately sadder reality.

Then there's Lyle Lovett's take on Friedman's song, "Sold American." Kinky's poem about the raggedy shape of the American dream in the disillusioned 70s is every bit as powerful as The Last Picture Show, all delivered with that ironically optimistic Sweetheart of the Rodeo-era thing that somehow manages to hide the bitterest of post-modern despair inside a deceptively simple country tune.

Whether or not Friedman would make a good governor, I have no idea. Ventura started off great in Minnesota, then pissed so many people off that his last two years were largely unproductive. Kinky's even got the same campaign manager as Jesse did. (Arnold, by contrast, is in a different category having run as a major party candidate rather than as an independent.)

But one thing's for sure: this time there's a real artist running for one of our nation's statehouses. I don't think there's too much of an artistic argument between Predator and "Ride 'Em Jewboy."


Posted on October 23, 2006

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